Quantum race intensifies amid global competition

With Europe's ten-year flagship research program now officially under way, and plans for a similar US effort passed by Congress, the global race to develop quantum technology has moved up a gear.

06 March 2019
Mike Hatcher
This NIST-developed chip squeezes a tiny cloud of atoms and structures for guiding light waves into an area of less than a single square centimeter.
This NIST-developed chip squeezes a tiny cloud of atoms and structures for guiding light waves into an area of less than a single square centimeter. The square window seen on top of the chip here is a vapor cell containing the atom cloud, and is surrounded by black epoxy holding a fiber-optic array. Photo: Matthew Hummon/NIST.

As one of the key technologies underpinning quantum coherence - what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance" - photonics is enabling a potentially vast new set of future applications. Around the world, and with ever greater financial support, researchers are working to move those technologies out of the laboratory and into truly commercial settings like encrypted telecommunications networks, high-precision navigation, and even construction sites.

Some suppliers of lasers and other photonic components have already benefitted greatly from the more science-led efforts. But that market will be small-fry compared with the anticipated future opportunity, and in recognition of recent developments in the US this year's Photonics West features a panel session dedicated to the topic.

In a rare recent example of bipartisan action, last summer the US House of Representatives unanimously approved plans for a decadal investment intended to help create a domestic "quantum industry." Just before the end of 2018 and the subsequent political impasse, the Senate passed the National Quantum Initiative (NQI) Act. SPIE, The Optical Society, and the National Photonics Initiative all applauded that action immediately, with SPIE's CEO Kent Rochford saying: "The passage of this landmark bill delivers the exciting promise of a future-focused, technology-smart world. The bill establishes the collaborative framework that is needed to produce research breakthroughs that will ultimately lead to fully enabled quantum applications."

But even before the NQI legislation was signed into law, the wheels were in motion. The establishment of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C) - its mission to "help accelerate the quantum industry by fostering a robust supply chain" - was already being overseen by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the independent, non-profit research laboratory SRI International.

Joseph Broz, VP of SRI's Advanced Technology and Systems Division (ATSD), is moderating Wednesday lunchtime's panel session on the quantum topic at Photonics West, focusing on the enabling photonics technologies that will underpin the emerging quantum industry.

According to an October 2018 presentation for NIST's Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology (VCAT), SRI's plans to establish the QED-C will target technology readiness levels (TRLs) 3-5, from first-of-a-kind device prototypes through to efficient purpose-designed components and subsystems.

One of the key elements of that will be to highlight use cases and grand challenges to help accelerate development efforts. One possible idea for such a grand challenge is to build a prototype "few-node" quantum network incorporating devices like quantum repeaters, memories, and processors.

Noting the level of fragmentation in the nascent quantum industry in the US, a key goal for the QED-C will be to foster effective industry collaboration and coordination, and build a stronger supply chain - of which photonics technologies will be a critical element.

A proposed organizational structure for the QED-C includes a technical advisory council with the job of identifying technical gaps and defining enabling technologies, alongside a governing board comprising three representatives of large industrial members, two SMEs, and two federal partners. As of October, 25 companies had signed letters of intent - ranging from major players like Google, IBM, Intel, Boeing, AT&T, and GE, to Photonics West exhibitor TOPTICA.

Global efforts
The global investment in quantum technology research and development is partly a response to the strides that have already been made in China. As well as establishing the world's first quantum-encrypted trans-continental satellite link, it is reported to be spending heavily on a huge research center devoted to quantum computing. The prospect of one country establishing a competitive advantage in computing and encryption can clearly be read as motivating the recent spending decisions elsewhere.

One of those locations is Europe, where a €1 billion, ten-year research program is now officially under way. In a blog post late last year Roberto Viola, director of the European Commission's DG Connect section (the part of the commission responsible for managing its digital agenda), wrote that the flagship program showed how Europe was "serious about turning its world-leading research into practical applications."

It's not quite clear that this was the message received by those applying for funding under the new scheme, however. At the program's official launch just a few weeks earlier, in the sumptuous surroundings of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, it was revealed that of 90 proposals made under the "fundamental science" stream of funding, only seven were successful. In contrast, and seemingly underlining the applied focus, four out of ten proposals received under the "quantum communication" pillar won support.

According to reports at the time, that stark disparity in success rates manifested itself with some grumbles in Vienna. After nearly two decades supporting more fundamental quantum research - at a cost of €550 million, according to Viola's post - perhaps the EC's message about a new direction of travel had not been made sufficiently evident.

But Viola himself seems clear enough in stating the flagship project's aims. "Now we are taking quantum research to another level," he wrote in his post. "The focus is very much on practical applications of quantum technologies, with more than a third of participants coming from industry, half of which are SMEs."

As in the US, Viola described the need for Europe to become home to a world-class quantum industry, to make the fullest use of quantum technologies, accelerate their development, and to bring them to the market.

"With investment of €1 billion over a decade, the initiative will turn Europe's already excellent quantum research results into real market leadership," he stated. "Quantum is no longer a curiosity; it is becoming mainstream. There are many practical applications of quantum technology, which could eventually replace many of the current technologies used in everyday life."

QKD hardware from KETS Quantum Security
The UK-based startup KETS Quantum Security, a spin-out from the University of Bristol, won venture backing to support its development of chip-scale quantum key distribution (QKD) hardware in December 2018. Photo: KETS Quantum Security.

Probably the best-known quantum applications right now are atomic clocks, already used in time standards and high-precision navigation systems. But Viola says that the latest advances in quantum technologies will open the door to miniaturized and ultra-precise clocks with a multitude of uses including smart energy grids, and time-stamping of financial transactions.

Another area where quantum technologies will play a major role in the future is in communications. Viola describes data as the "lifeblood" of the European Union's digital economy, and that ensuring it is safe and secure is vital. "Using quantum technologies will mean more secure telecommunication networks, ensuring the long-term secrecy of our digital data," he wrote.

And after spending more than half a billion euros on the more fundamental work, the plan now is to exploit quantum phenomena in computing and simulation, metrology, sensing, and communications. "If Europe truly wants to lead this technological revolution, we must set common objectives and coordinate our efforts," stated Viola. "The flagship initiative is the first example of a truly coherent pan-European strategy for quantum technologies."

UK showcase
Those envisaged areas of application align strongly with the UK's standalone effort, whose second major tranche of funding was confirmed in the UK government's November 2018 budget statement. With £315 million to support developments over the next five years, the UK's per capita spending on quantum technologies is among the highest globally, and following the initial five-year developmental period the focus is now very much on commercial activity.

At the fourth UK Quantum Technology Showcase, held in Westminster, London, just before the budget announcement, around 800 attendees were able to view some of the latest prototype equipment in action. With the UK's scheme now looking to raise the TRL level further, four new efforts were announced. Two of those projects are devoted to quantum key distribution (QKD) for secure communications, a third will develop a gravity "imager" for use in construction, and a fourth is focused on miniature atomic clocks. Crucially, the expectation is to realize full working prototype systems within the 29-month duration of these projects.

That commercial focus is equally evident in the latest report on quantum activity from the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology. It recommended establishing a new executive board in early 2019 to oversee the second phase of the national quantum effort. "[The board] should have a clearly defined mission statement and be held accountable for delivering on it," wrote the Members of Parliament on the committee.

It's clear that this is not just about funding more science - even though that element is still regarded as important. "The mission statement should include an overall aim to support the development of a UK quantum technologies industry that delivers the maximum economic, national security, and societal benefit for the UK public as a whole," states the report.

NPL_optical stabilizing reference cavity cube
Engineers at the UK's National Physical Laboratory (NPL) have developed this optical stabilizing reference cavity cube. Measuring 5 cm along each side, it is made from low-expansion glass and has mirrors placed precisely at each end of the drilled cavity for use in optical atomic clocks. Photo: NPL.

One of the first jobs for a new executive board will be to produce a detailed roadmap, or series of roadmaps, detailing the future markets that quantum technologies in the UK would be expected to serve. The committee wants that roadmap to extend 20 years into the future, with annual updates planned. It should be publicly available, and identify future markets and any obstacles to commercialization of quantum technologies in the UK, as well as a strategy to overcome them. "The strategy should be published and updated alongside the roadmap and include clear, measurable milestones, to be reviewed annually."

Another outcome should be the establishment of dedicated, application-focused "innovation centers", to sit alongside the four established, but more science-focused, quantum hubs that were set up in the first phase of the UK effort.

Modelled on the UK's existing "Catapult" centers for applied technologies, the new innovation centers would be expected to provide access to facilities for developing, manufacturing, testing and validating quantum prototypes, and should become focal points around which collaboration and supply chains can consolidate. This suggests real physical centers rather than "virtual networks", with a focus on the development of commercial products for specific market sectors - rather than simply reflecting the different types of quantum technologies under development.

What might those commercial products be? The Photonics West exhibitor M-Squared Lasers, which has been heavily involved in the UK program, gave a clear indication in London, where it unveiled its new quantum accelerometer, developed with researchers at Imperial College, London.

The current system is designed for navigation of large vehicles, but could also aid the search for dark energy and gravitational waves, which the Imperial team is also working on. Ed Hinds, a professor at Imperial's Centre for Cold Matter, said: "I think it's tremendously exciting that this quantum technology is now moving out of the basic science lab and being applied to problems in the wider world, all from the fantastic sensitivity and reliability that you can only get from these quantum systems."

At the London showcase a panel session chaired by M-Squared CEO Graeme Malcolm was asked to estimate when commercial quantum systems would be available to buy as products. As Andrew Shields from Toshiba Research Europe noted, that's already possible now - though only if you are prepared to spend in the region of £100,000 on a QKD encryption system. But Shields predicted that with the availability of mass-produced photonic integrated circuits (PICs), that cost ought to fall dramatically.

The same panel session heard that a UK project to develop gravity sensors based on laser-cooled atoms could result in a real-world product in just a couple of years. Engineering consultancy RSK is coordinating the "Gravity Pioneer" effort, which will use photonics technology from the likes of UnikLasers, OptoCap, and Teledyne e2v to image beneath high-value construction sites, to avoid hitting otherwise invisible buried pipes, or other hazards. It may seem a rather prosaic application - but as George Tuckwell, RSK's director of geoscience and engineering, noted, the sheer scale of the construction industry in the UK ought to realize a substantial market opportunity. "As soon as we have something that works, we can sell it," he said, adding that some of the prototype developments shown in London were getting close to what he called the "interesting" performance levels required to capture new kinds of data.

For each of the panelists involved, proof of success would mean seeing real systems at future editions of the UK's quantum showcase event - something that is not yet evident, M-Squared's accelerometer aside.

Shortly after the London showcase one of its exhibitors provided a different signal indicating commercial progress. KETS Quantum Security, a University of Bristol spin-out working on chip-scale QKD hardware and involved in one of the newly funded prototyping projects, revealed that it had attracted seed investment from Paris-based specialist venture firm Quantonation. The investor, which describes itself as dedicated to supporting "deep physics" and quantum technologies, previously invested in Bordeaux-based Photonics West exhibitor and Prism Award finalist Spark Lasers.

Commenting on the KETS funding, Quantonation's CEO Christophe Jurczak added: "After years of ground-breaking research, now is the time for the unique properties of quantum physics to be harnessed and exploited."

The global competition doesn't stop there. With Germany investing in a large number of projects to develop quantum repeaters for extending the reach of QKD, plus substantial efforts also under way in Canada and The Netherlands, the overall message is clear: the global quantum race is on.

-Mike Hatcher is editor of optics.org. A version of this article appeared in the 2019 Photonics West Show Daily.

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